Pope Francis has signed a new universal law for the global Catholic church specifying that a bishop's negligence in response to clergy sexual abuse can lead to his removal from office.
The law also empowers several Vatican dicasteries to investigate such bishops and initiate processes of removal, subject to final papal approval.
The move, made by the pontiff in a formal document known as a motu proprio on Saturday, appears to represent a significant moment in the worldwide church's decades-long clergy sexual abuse crisis.
In case after case in the past, the Vatican and church officials would dig in to protect bishops even when there was substantial documented evidence of negligence on their behalf. Now, the pope has formally mandated that the church's offices in Rome must prosecute bishops who fail in protecting children.
"Canon law already foresees the possibility of removal from the ecclesial office 'for grave causes,'" Francis states in a short preamble to the new law, given the Italian name Come una madre amorevole ("Like a loving mother.")
"With the following letter I intend to specify that among those 'grave causes' is included negligence of bishops in the exercise of their office, particularly relative to cases of sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults," he continues.
Marie Collins, a member of Francis' Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and an abuse survivor, told NCR she welcomes the new procedures and "hope they will succeed in bringing the accountability survivors have waited for so long."
"The most important aspect of any new procedure is its implementation and that is what we must wait to see," she said.
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the head of the commission, called the motu proprio "clearly an important and positive step forward."
"We are grateful that our Holy Father has received the recommendations from our Commission members and that they have contributed to this new and significant initiative," he said.
The new measure, comprising five short articles, allows "the competent congregation of the Roman Curia" to begin investigations of local bishops, eparchs, or heads of religious communities when the congregation suspects a leader's negligence has caused "physical, moral, spiritual or patrimonial" harm.
"The diocesan bishop or the eparch or whoever has the responsibility for a particular church, even if temporarily ... can be legitimately removed from his position if he has by negligence, placed or omitted acts caused serious harm to others, whether their physical persons or the community as a whole," states the first article.
"The diocesan bishop or eparch can be removed only if he has objectively been lacking in a very grave manner the diligence that is required of his pastoral office," it continues, specifying: "In the case of abuse against minors or vulnerable adults it is sufficient that the lacking of diligence be grave."
The law obliges the Vatican to notify the local bishop or leader of the investigation and to give him the possibility to produce relevant documents or testimony.
"To the bishop will be given the possibility to defend himself, according to the methods foreseen by the law," it states. "All the steps of the inquiry will be communicated to him and he will always be given the possibility of meeting the superiors of the congregation."
The law states that "if it becomes necessary to remove the bishop" the congregation involved in the matter can either proceed "to give, in the shortest time possible, the decree or removal" or "to exhort the bishop fraternally to present his resignation within 15 days."
"If the bishop does give his response in that time, the congregation can release the decree of removal," it states.
All decisions by Vatican congregations, the law states, "must be subjected to the specific approval of the Roman Pontiff." The pope, it continues, will be assisted in making his decision "by a special association of legal experts of the designated need."
The new law appears to modify a suggestion Francis was given last year by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to create a new tribunal at the Vatican to judge bishops who respond inappropriately to sexual abuse claims.
Where a new tribunal would have likely required much time and effort to create, the law deputizes current Vatican offices to undertake that work.
The U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement they were "highly skeptical" of the pope's new law.
"A 'process' isn’t needed," said the group. "Discipline is what’s needed. A 'process' doesn’t protect kids. Action protects kids. A 'process' is helpful only if it’s used often enough to deter wrongdoing. We doubt this one will be."
Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's chief spokesman, said in a note Saturday that four Vatican congregations would be charged with investigating prelates: for Bishops, for the Evangelization of Peoples, for the Oriental Churches, and for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
The Vatican's chief doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will not be involved with the new law "because it is not a matter of crimes of abuse but of negligence of office," Lombardi said.
The spokesman also said that the "special association" that is to assist the pope in deciding on these matters will be a new group of advisers and "you can foresee that this association will be composed of cardinals and bishops."
The new law is to take effect Sept. 5.